April 2015



Civil Unrest in Baltimore

Written by , Posted in Culture, Politics, Race


A major American city is talking. Will anyone listen?


Still trying to wrap my head around everything that’s been going on in Baltimore. A few thoughts:

1. The Baltimore city government needs to move quickly to make the results of their investigation in Gray’s homicide public.

1a. Using racialized language (i.e., “thugs”) at a time like this is not a smart move, even if you are a black elected official.

2. We’re at a point where only the most ardent police apologists can deny that there are aspects of law enforcement culture that are rotten and need to be changed. That will require changes in technology (i.e., body cams), recruiting, training, department policy, police culture, investigation, and prosecution. Police who betray their oaths and commit serious crimes, and the arms of law enforcement that are complicit, undermine the very rule of law they have sworn to protect.

3. In times like this I take everything I hear from the major media outlets with a grain of salt. These companies have a bottom line and certain types of coverage sells. They also have political agendas and certain types of coverage can activate viewers and voters.

4. It is easy to draw a straight line from the anger at Freddie Gray’s death, and the subsequent lack of info re: the investigation, to the peaceful protests over the weekend. You can see it in the signs, hear it in the chants, etc. Less clear, even though basically accepted as gospel, is the motivations of the teenagers who seemed to be responsible for the majority of the rioting and looting Monday night.

Everyone has assumed these young people were acting out years of pent up rage and resorting to the only thing they could do to have their voices heard. I’m wary of making such generalizations without hearing from the young people themselves. It is easy to project our long held anger about systemic oppression on to people who look like us but it is dangerous to know what anyone truly feels without hearing from them.

The irony of comparing the riots in Baltimore to ones that happen after major sporting events is that the motives of those majority-white crowds are rarely dissected in public spaces. My wife asked me why I thought people burned cars and busted windows after their team won or lost) a championship. My response? Among other things, I think three elements that come into play are a primal desire to tear stuff up, a socially acceptable (relatively speaking) environment in which to do so, and the power of groupthink. I believe in the humanity of black people so much that I can’t dismiss those feelings as entirely plausible factors as well.

5. I don’t think we should be flip about the long-term impact of rioting and looting in minority communities. There is no question that lives should matter a lot more to us all than broken windows. We should all agree on that point. That said, destroying our own neighborhoods can have consequences (e.g., middle class flight, neighborhood blight, economic disinvestment, gentrification) that can harm these communities. This thing is chess, not checkers.

6. I have heard any number of people (FB friends, city officials, political pundits, media, professors, and public intellectuals) explain the myriad social, economic, social, and political factors that are at the root of the civil unrest in Baltimore the other night. What I have not heard from ANY of them is a set of tangible solutions. To be clear, I’m not referring to Freddie Gray’s case specifically because at best, that was taken to be the match, not the kindling, that started the rioting.

But honestly fam, I’m tired of reading thinkpieces that rehash the same problems. I long for the day of strategies to address the most pressing issues facing poor communities of color. And while ending racism is laudable long-term goal, it is not going to help an unemployed 24 year old father with only a h.s. diploma create a better life for himself and his kid. Calling for wholesale changes to local policing policies (see point #2) is a solutions-based thinking. Pressing elected officials to fund education and training programs for individuals coming home from prison is solutions-based thinking. Using government funding (whether federal or local) to fund counseling, parenting, and financial management classes is solutions-based thinking.

6a. Progress in communities of color will undoubtedly require government action but major cities already spend a significant part of their operating budgets on social and human services. The socioeconomic issues being discussed will also require churches and other religious institutions, nonprofits and CBOs, and other civic institutions. We also need leaders who are as adept at discussing systemic oppression as they are at articulating a “life script” for young people that gives them a vision of what life could be. There are slight variations to some steps but for the most part here’s the one I personally endorse: 1) complete your K-12 education, 2) continue your education in college or learn a trade, 3) get a job, 4) continue on that job until you can find a better job, 5) get married, 6) have children when you are financially, socially, and emotionally ready, 7) create a healthy environment for your children that supports their emotional, social, and educational growth, 8) support them so they can get to step 1, and 9) retire, and 10) enjoy your latter days and help your children as they navigate their way through the process.

7. Progress also requires the effort of everyday citizens. There is no policy or set of policies that can make a person do anything. Black people, like all people, are humans with agency, not robots who react predictably to public policy. Even in cases when public policy includes a mandate AND strong enforcement mechanism (e.g., compulsory education), you still don’t have 100% compliance. Any policies or programs that require action from individuals to are bound to see even lower success rates among target populations. I’ve worked in government for a number of years and I’ve seen people take advantage of government programs and build skills that allowed them to alter the course of their lives. I have also worked with orgs. who have had to literally go door to door to pull people into nonprofit programs in their own housing communities. Given a population of any significant size, you’ll get all types of people so those types of things don’t surprise me. This certainly isn’t a phenomenon exclusive to black folk. I have no doubt that similar things happen in other majority-white locales as well. Baltimore will survive what’s taken place in the last few days. I hope that the elected officials in that city learn from their missteps. The entrenched poverty in that city didn’t occur overnight. Neither will progress. Thankfully the people in Baltimore calling for justice for Freddie Gray and long-term change in the city aren’t going anywhere.

  • Great piece.

    • Delano

      Thanks Lamar!